With the Ravens ramping up their activity level before the start of full training camp practices later this month, we’ll take a look at some key position battles ahead of the 2020 season.
Below is a look at the competition for the third safety/dime back job:
The terms “base defense” and “front seven” are no longer the norm in today’s NFL with the Ravens being no exception.
After running its conventional 3-4 defense just 16 percent of the time in 2018, Baltimore used its base front a league-low nine percent of the time last season, according to Football Outsiders. While the nickel featuring five defensive backs has become the real “base” defense around the pass-happy NFL, Wink Mardinale deployed a dime package (six defensive backs) 41 percent of the time in 2019, up from 26 percent in his first season as defensive coordinator.
With the overwhelming strength of the Ravens defense being its secondary, it makes sense for Martindale to lean more heavily in that direction, but will the trend of increasing dime usage continue in 2020? The acquisitions of defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe and the drafting of inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison reflected the desire to improve a middling run defense, but that doesn’t mean the Ravens will suddenly turn back the clock on the way defense is played, especially if they enjoy leads as often as they did last season.
Even if Martindale has more faith in Queen, Harrison, and veteran L.J. Fort to use two linebackers in passing situations more frequently, the dime figures to remain a prominent part of Baltimore’s defense, which brings us back to that sixth defensive back spot. Outside cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, safeties Earl Thomas and Chuck Clark, and nickel corner Tavon Young are the established starting five, but ex-Raven Brandon Carr served as the third safety with Clark often moving into the box in the second half of the 2019 season.
Many have discussed the possibility of veteran Jimmy Smith — re-signed to a one-year, $3.5 million deal in March — transitioning from cornerback to that third safety role, but head coach John Harbaugh downplayed the idea of Smith making a definitive position change like Carr did midway through last season. Smith also remains the Ravens’ best outside corner option behind Humphrey and Peters.
“Jimmy has already done what Brandon Carr did last year,” Martindale said in June. “We put him against good tight ends to cover in special situations, whether it’s a third down or two-minute [drill] or what have you or different kinds of packages. The thing that comes out about that is the best 11 will play, but it could be a different set of 11 for every package and matchup that we want to do with whatever situation it is.”
The Ravens also re-signed the 33-year-old Anthony Levine, who excelled as the primary dime back in 2017 and 2018 before seeing his playing time diminish last season. The most intriguing options for the No. 3 safety spot are a pair of young players who’ve combined to play only 40 defensive snaps in the NFL.
Injuries have limited 2018 sixth-round pick DeShon Elliott to six career games, but the the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Texas product turned heads last spring and summer with his physicality and range in pass coverage. That skill set would seem to be a good fit for Elliott to enter as either a deep safety or a dime back playing in the box, but Elliott will need to show he’s fully recovered from a serious knee injury sustained last October.
Elliott will face competition from seventh-round rookie Geno Stone, whom the Ravens didn’t evaluate closely until he declared for the draft in early January. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Iowa product may not stand out from a physical standpoint, but team officials like his football intellect and processing ability, making him an interesting first-year player to watch in a defense known for its flexibility and deception.
As Martindale indicated, the Ravens won’t feel compelled to stick to one player for that sixth defensive back spot as game situation and opposing personnel will prompt different looks. The arrivals of Queen and Harrison may allow Baltimore to lean more on the nickel package than a year ago, but the dime isn’t going anywhere, meaning this summer will be a key time for Ravens coaches to sort through both their veteran and younger options.